I can tell my mother is nervous because she has the airport look on her face, the ďdonít speak unless you are spoken to, let me do all the talking,Ē look. The only difficulty with this plan is that for a brief period of time, she and I will be separated, and the man seated across the desk at the federal building will actually insist that I speak.
The day has come for our citizenship test, to determine if we are worthy of becoming Americans, giving up our Israeli identities. So far the immigration building and its officials have done their best to make us feel like outsiders, drab walls and unsmiling clerks unwelcoming to the handful of immigrants seated on hard plastic chairs in the waiting room. When our names are called my mother grimaces at the mispronunciation of both, her "Jolanta" sounding like the Hispanic Yolanda, and my "Caren" sounding like Karen, her own fault for spelling it that way. For a brief moment I wait for her voice to correct, set them straight by pointing out their error. But it does not come. She must want what is promised behind that door even more than her need to prove other peopleís ignorance.
The man behind the desk is polite but all business. Between questions about the number of stripes on the American flag and what the fourth of July means, I try to read his face but fail. My time in these United States and my exposure to its men has been too brief to help me decipher masked Anglo expressions. Mediterranean men hide nothing, their emotions writ large for all to see. Teachers yell their dissatisfaction, bus drivers growl their stops, strangers flirt shamelessly, their dark eyes following a young womanís moves, desire licking at her heels like hungry flames. The blue-eyed official seems satisfied with my answers, making a few notes before surprising me by reaching across the desk to shake my hand, congratulating me for successfully responding.
Within days my mother and I are standing in a judgeís chambers, our right hands over our hearts, about to pledge our allegiance to this country that has opened its doors and welcomed us in. In a few yearsí time I will be almost indistinguishable from other citizens. My English will no longer be halting, my responses more natural, not script like as I read prepared passages I write out before making a phone call, however simple. I will learn to enjoy the quiet of a suburban afternoon, no neighbors peering into our windows, showing up uninvited for coffee. I will remember to buy my swimsuit when the smell of snow still lingers in the air, quickly learning that the good ones are gone once summer sales arrive. One day I will sit on a grassy hill surrounded by other Americans, waiting for darkness to fall and fireworks to explode across the night sky. And I will feel the pride swelling inside me, understanding the words a roomful of newcomers are now repeating in various accents, some with tears in their eyes. I know that it is good to finally be Americans, our presence in this country no longer legally challenged, although my motherís thick accent will always earn her impatient looks from those claiming they cannot understand her. Yet Iím not certain I am prepared for the declaration we are all making, absolutely and entirely renouncing all allegiance and fidelity to the place from which we came. "I take this obligation freely without any mental reservationÖso help me God." But I do have reservations, and which god? The one before whom old Jewish men in long black coats sway and rock, their prayers floating out the windows of the synagogue down our boulevard, children swinging from the branches of the gnarled fig tree outside? Or the one all our American neighbors celebrate as they gather round twinkling, tinseled trees framed in windows of houses to which we have yet to be invited.
Iím not finished being me in the country I left, havenít had enough time watching older Israeli girls to see if I want to be like them. Despite our frequent leave-taking, and my familiarity with the view of its receding shores from behind the thick window of a plane, I love my country with a fierceness and absoluteness of first love and youth. And now I was expected to be American, simply because our green cards had expired and mother thought the timing right.
Not yet. Not when I still ache for the warmth of a Mediterranean beach under my bare feet, for the rosy sky of an Israeli sunrise, doves cooing on my windowís ledge, for my best friendís laugh when I tell a joke in the language in which I still dream. Not when my fatherís absence is welling up and filling my own eyes here in this room during a ceremony of which he is not a part nor will ever be.
I donít know how to be American yet. Years still need to pass before Iíll adopt the easy banter, slightly dropping the literary English with which so many non-native speakers give themselves away. Years before being referred to as you guys doesnít make me cringe and correct the waiter showing me to my seat. I refuse to use the word cool, and the beautiful cowboy boots an American husband will buy me one day donít grace my closet yet. I still believe the clerk at the grocery store really wants to know when she asks how Iím doing, and when the friend I just met says sheíll talk to me later, I wait for the phone to ring all afternoon before I realize I must have misunderstood.
I was a work in progress in Israel, watching others for clues to tell me who to be. And now I have a wardrobe filled with too many selves, and I donít know which one to wear.